O shite and onions! When is this bloody state of affairs going to end? (James Joyce, letter, 1920)
Just as different countries develop distinct dialects, so too do they produce their own conventions of swearing. Ireland has an enthusiastic culture of verbal irreverence, among whose characteristic features are the words feck and shite. Feck is a minced oath whose uses, meanings and origins I’ve explored on my own language blog, Sentence first. Shite is a slightly coarser swear, more at home here on Strong Language.
Shite is often but not always a direct variant of shit in the Hiberno-English profanilect.* It’s also used in Scotland, Australia, and other regional dialects, but my focus here is on usage in Ireland. All the main senses of shit are shared by shite. Like its global relative, shite commonly means nonsense, something rubbish or useless, or plain old excrement. We may talk shit or shite, be full of shit or shite, not give a shit or a shite, do a shit or a shite.
Tom didn’t realise what a nasty wee shite Jason has become. (Niamh Ní Bhaoill, Ros na Rún)
Shite carries a long history, intertwined somewhat with that of shit on account of the older phonetic forms of the latter. The Oxford English Dictionary, which has citations from Larkin, Enright, Hemingway, Amis, and (inevitably and repeatedly) Joyce, says shite:
probably result[ed] from the influence of forms of shit (v.) with a long vowel, although there could also have been an (unattested) inherited form in Old English with a long vowel (deriving from the e-grade of the same Germanic base); compare Middle Low German schīt, schīte faeces, filth, Middle High German schīze diarrhoea (German Scheiße faeces), Old Icelandic skítr faeces.
As the American Heritage Dictionary shows, the same root hides in plain sight in relatively innocuous words like shyster (from Old High German skīzzan ‘defecate’) and blatherskite (Middle English –skite ‘diarrhoea’, from Old Norse skītr ‘excrement’), but I’ll forgo further etymological detail for now. The OED finds shite occurring earliest regionally, mainly in Ireland and Scotland, and later in colloquial English ‘as a jocular or quasi-euphemistic variant of shit’. But the word was probably used in speech well before being committed to print.
Shite is generally more expressive to my ears and usually comes more naturally as an interjection. Shit has its place in my speech but can feel rather like an import on my western Irish tongue. I may use it to mean stuff (Whose is this shit?) or events/phenomena (That’s some crazy shit), and would not use shite in these contexts. But others have told me they would, so there’s personal variation. I’ve never heard anyone say No shite for No shit, so I’d guess it’s not idiomatic.
The New Corpus of Ireland has just nine hits for shite, but the genre/subgenre distributions are suggestive, if unsurprising:
Shite often functions as a standalone expletive to express irritation, regret, and other moderately negative states, quite often tempered by wry amusement or ironic detachment. It may be intensified or complemented by other swears: one member of my family resorts regularly to Fuckin’ shite! as an exclamation of annoyance or frustration, intensified to Fuckin’ bolloxin’ shite! when the need for more extreme expression arises.
Where shit and shite are semantically equivalent and syntactically available, shifting from one to the other can alter the flavour of the utterance. The diphthong in shite is an enduring echo of its millennium-old ancestor and Germanic cognates, but is rare in modern English-language swearwords. It gives shite a force and heft beyond the abrupt span of shit, whose closed vowel restricts its rhetorical effect. Beside the dynamic, open spread of /ʃaɪt/, /ʃɪt/ can feel bland and bleached by comparison.
Shite appears in a wide variety of compound nouns and phrases, some of them closed to shit. What follows is not meant to be exhaustive but will give an idea of what’s in use.
Gobshite is a popular term of abuse for a foolish or daft person (like eejit but sharper), or for a contemptible person, especially a self-satisfied, pretentious, and voluble one. Both senses are common. Gobshite scorns stupidity and subverts bluster without fuss or mercy, but like many Irish insults it can also be used to tease someone affectionately. The gob /ɡɒb/ is probably from Irish gob /ɡʌb/ ‘beak, mouth’.
Here’s an example of the word’s fool sense used in Father Ted:
It shows up (unbowdlerised) in news headlines too:
Shitehawk is a similar epithet said of a no-good or, again, contemptible person, usually a man. (Pigeons, seagulls, kites and other birds also suffer the term.) You could tell a shitehawk, human or avian, to go and shite (‘Go away’). The –hawk of shitehawk may be through analogy with gobhawk (from Irish gobachán). A search for shitehawk in Google Books shows examples of its use in print. I hear it used as a verb and gerund too: Quit your shitehawking (‘messing around’).
Shit-talk can mean trash-talk, i.e., put someone down (whether maliciously, jocularly, or competitively), but shite-talk, as a noun or intransitive verb, refers only to idle talk (We stayed up a while shite-talking) or nonsense (There’s no end of shite-talk out of her). A dry shite (less commonly dry balls) is a boring, anti-fun person.
Like shit, you can frighten the shite out of someone or kick the shite out of them, even seven shades of it. But if you know what’s good for you you won’t break your shite (from) laughing when your mother gives out shite to you. Break your shite… may derive from break/bust your hole (laughing), while in the second phrase shite intensifies the Irish idiom give out ‘scold; complain’: I gave out shite to him is synonymous with gave out stink or yards.
Finally there’s a curious reply of ironic dissent or contradiction that hinges on in/and one’s shite, usually preceded by the verb be or do. Thus: I am in me [my] shite, sometimes I am and shite, is an emphatic ‘I am not’; She did and (her) shite = ‘She did not.’ Other vulgarities can occupy the sweary slot in this construction, for example I will in me hole; we will in our bollocks. All signal how unthinkable a scenario is from the point of view of the person in question.
Lest you think I’m talking complete shite, here are a few examples of this phrase from published dialogue. From Brendan O’Carroll’s book Agnes Browne:
‘Tell Mr Richard I want him.’
‘What? I will in me shite!’
Stephen J. Martin, Rock and a Hard Place:
‘What?! She liked you!’
‘She did in her shite.’
Fred Kennedy, Three Storeys Up: Tales of Dublin Tenement Life:
‘I will in my shite go! Why don’t you go?’
The same basic meaning and effect are conveyed by the inverted idioms Will I shite (‘I will not’), Did he fuck (‘He did not’), Can you bollox (‘You cannot’), etc. In speech these are never confused with the questions they resemble because the intonation falls instead of rising.
I asked Irish people on Twitter about their use of shite compared to shit, and got many interesting answers. Preferences and nuances vary a bit, but there is broad agreement (shared by those I spoke with in person) that shite is much more expressive and usually a bit milder than shit. If you use it or hear it, in any part of the world, I’d be especially interested in your thoughts along these lines. But that’s enough shite out of me for one day.
* Obscenilect? Profanilexicon? Have we a word for this yet?